PHANI MAJUMDAR was a pioneer of Indian cinema, working in the late 1930s with PC Barua, India's equivalent of DW Griffith, in the famous New Theatres Studio of Calcutta. Here, between 1936 and 1939, new standards were set for Indian motion pictures in a series of reflective, lyrical films that brought cinema closer to life and literature.
Majumbar's contribution was Street Singer (1938), a melancholy love story, his debut and a classic of Indian cinema. Its male lead, Kundanlal Saigal, sang his immortal song 'Babul Mora' here, on a charged symbolic landscape of boats adrift in the mist. The Famine of 1943 and Partition of India were events of the future yet much of the symbolism of Bengal, the redolent Tagorean motifs of life-giving rivers, the feudal elite recreating the 19th century in desolate mansions - all the stuff that Satyajit Ray later spoke of as 'the past' - was in place with Street Singer. It was watched, not just as a love story par excellence, but as an expression of themes of Indian identity and nationalism which would be relevant for India,
and Majumdar, even beyond Independence.
Majumdar was born in Faridpur, in what is now Bangladesh, in 1911. From Calcutta he moved to Bombay in 1941, directing classic musicals which often promoted traditional ways of Indian life, with stars like Suraiya (in Tamanna, 1942), Shanta Apte in Mohabbat (1943), and the blind singer KC Dey.
Majumdar's Andolan (1951), Indian cinema's most elaborately constructed nationalist propaganda feature, was made to promote Nehru's Congress Party and was the closest that India ever came, on film, to defining a popular culture of nationalism: a small family in Bengal experiences in microcosm the major political events in the country, from 1885 (when the Congress Party was established) to Independence.
Majumdar returned to India from working in Singapore in the 1960s, and proceeded to make films in Punjabi, and even in obscure languages like Magadhi (Bhaiya, 1961) and Maithili (Kanyadaan, 1965). His interest in themes of an intrinsically Indian nature was a driving force to the end of his career. He worked on the television phenomenon of the 1980s in India, the 78-part religious epic The Ramayana, and was working on a television series Our India when he died. No doubt, had he lived, the Our India series, on a state television network struggling to hold its own in competition with satellite, would have been the fitting finale to a career which started with Street Singer.